By Carlos Quijada for BioLawToday.org
When I started studying law, people asked what type of law was I interested in? My response was usually along the lines of, “I want to practice health law.” After all, it was during my time working in the Public Health Department in Saba (Caribbean Netherlands) that I felt inspired to go to law school. However, I knew little to nothing about what health law was. I never had the opportunity to ask an attorney questions about what is health law, or what is public health law? Or what does a health law attorney do? It wasn’t until my second year, when I enrolled in Professor Francis’ Health Law Course, that I began to have a better understanding of what health law was. In class, we learned about some of the regulatory structures in the healthcare industry, like HIPAA, the Anti-Kickback Statute and False Claims Act. Throughout the class, I let Professor Francis know of my growing interest in health law. Aware of this, she emailed me when she came across an exciting opportunity with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At first, I was hesitant, a bit intimidated by competing for a national internship. After encouragement from Professor Francis and the other professors from the Law and Biomedical Sciences (LABS) program, I applied. It came as a complete shock when I learned that I had been selected as a summer fellow to the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) at the CDC.
The CDC, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, is not only the nation’s preeminent public health agency, but a global authority on health. For some people, the CDC is synonymous with infectious diseases like Ebola, HIV or Smallpox, while for others the CDC embodies health promotion against childhood obesity, diabetes and cancer. With over 15,000 employees, the CDC is organized into 17 Centers, Institutes, and Offices (CIOs), with offices throughout the U.S. and abroad. The CIOs implement the agency’s activities in an area of expertise. As with any other large-scale enterprise, the CIOs are confronted with a myriad of legal issues. The CDC’s Office of General Counsel provides the CIOs, it’s ‘clients,’ with legal advice. Over 50 attorneys under the leadership of Deputy Associate General Counsel, Ms. Paula Kocher, work tirelessly to advance the agency’s goal of protecting the health of all Americans. From anti-vaccination litigation, to employee issues, CDC attorneys do it all. A typical day involves interpreting statutory authorities relating to budget and mission, assisting in rulemaking, litigation involving the government, and reviewing and interpreting legislation affecting CDC.
As one of four legal interns, I was able to draft numerous memoranda for Senior Attorneys on topics such as water-borne infectious disease, intellectual property, FOIA, global health, and medical malpractice. I sat through depositions of CDC scientists in ongoing superfund litigation, presented to CDC personnel on the Opioid epidemic, and received weekly training by the HHS OGC headquarters in Washington D.C. In addition to legal work, I participated in other exciting CDC activities. I toured an infectious disease laboratory, where we witnessed how the CDC scientists analyze norovirus samples received from all over the world, the goal being disease surveillance and vaccine development. We were allowed access to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), where we saw first-hand how the CDC responds to national and global emergencies. During the Ebola outbreak, the EOC was activated and manned 24/7 by representatives from all the different CIOs, including attorneys from OGC. One of the most enjoyable days was as a volunteer in the CDC’s disease detective camp, a summer camp designed for high school students with an interest in public health. The students got a weeklong taste of epidemiology by conducting field interviews in a mock measles outbreak. Finally, I had the opportunity to sit in on numerous presentations by renowned scientists on a variety of health topics. One, was an interesting talk by Professor Mehrsa Baradaran (our own Professor Baughman’s sister!) on the intersection between banking and public health. At the end of the internship with OGC, the attorneys hosted a lavish reception at a downtown Atlanta condo as a thank you for a job well done. I was asked to give a speech on my experiences at OGC and voiced my appreciation for the opportunity.
Even though my work at the OGC concluded in August, my time at the CDC did not. I was lucky to be selected among dozens of applicants to participate in the CDC’s Public Health Law Program (PHLP) fall internship. PHLP is the Nation’s leading center for public health law research. The program is dedicated to legal epidemiology, or the scientific evaluation of how laws factor in the cause, distribution and prevention of disease and injury in a population. Legal epidemiology helps public health stakeholders understand trends in law and policy across jurisdictions, inform best practices for the field, and enable research on the impact and effectiveness of laws on health. By gathering and analyzing large legal databases, PHLP attorneys create valid, reliable, and repeatable studies that inform legal and public health practice. So far, I have researched school vaccination laws across states, presented on public health emergency laws and briefed senior attorneys on ongoing litigation. I am looking forward to the rest of my internship in PHLP and furthering my skills in legal epidemiology.
Overall, working at the CDC is wonderful. I look forward coming into work every day, and as someone not used to the Atlanta traffic, I can say it is worth the commute. I wouldn’t trade my experience at the CDC for anything. My understanding of health law significantly increased, and I love being a part of something bigger than myself. But the work—meaningful as it is—is only a small part of what makes my experience so special. Everyone I meet, from senior attorneys to Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSA), are helping me grow, both as a law student and as a person. The attorneys in OGC took their time to talk with me about my future goals, not because they felt they had to, but because they truly cared. The dedication to their jobs and their interns is something I will never forget. I am also extremely thankful for the support from the Law and Biomedical Sciences (LABS) professors and other S.J. Quinney professors. Their backing and flexibility while I am away from Salt Lake City is invaluable.
There are many reasons for law students to be interested in health law, but if you feel unsure about the field, like I did, my advice is to reach out to your professors, take a health law course, and join the Health Law Club. Then when the time comes, do not hesitate to apply for national health law opportunities!